One can find a great variety of themes in American poetry, whatever the period one is interested in: poems about love or about war, about the self or about nature, about reality or about dreams. But the common point of all these is that they convey a sense of American-ness – that is, they can all explain differently what it is to be American. For instance, Francis Scott Key in his 1814 poem entitled "Defense of Fort M'Henry" – that was to become the American national anthem under the title "The Star-Spangled Banner" – argued that to be an American was primarily to be a patriot. Another viewpoint is that of Langston Hughes: in "Theme for English B", written in 1951, he suggested that to be American was to be part and parcel of a multicultural society in which inequalities exist, and that minorities had to fight their way into this society.
[...] On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep, Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes, What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep, As it fitfully blows, now conceals, now discloses? Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam, In full glory reflected now shines on the stream; 'Tis the star-spangled banner; O long may it wave O'er the land of the free, and the home of the brave! And where is that band who so vauntingly swore That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion A home and a country should leave us no more? [...]
[...] (31-33) Different kinds of people are necessary to form the American people in its variety some speak of the American nation as a "melting pot" or as a "salad bowl"; this latter phrase seems more appropriate as these different people are put together but not really mixed with each other, often because they do not want to: Sometimes perhaps you don't want to be a part of me. Nor do I often want to be a part of you. (34-35) To integrate American society, Black people need to ascend the social ladder, and this too is expressed in the poem, as the narrator attends a "college on the hill above Harlem" and to study he "take[s] the elevator / up to [his] room" (14-15). [...]
[...] I went to school there, then Durham, then here to this college on the hill above Harlem. I am the only colored student in my class. The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem, through a park, then I cross St Nicholas, Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the the Harlem Branch where I take the elevator up to my room, sit down, and write this page: It's not easy to know what is true for you or me at twenty-two, my age. [...]
[...] I went to school there, then Durham, then here to this college on the hill above Harlem, This man is asked to write a page for his English course, a "true" page that will "come out of As a young Black man of the 1950s, he chooses to write about his condition. This poem seems to be nothing more than this homework. The context of this poem is that of segregation. In the first half of the twentieth century in America, very few Black people were allowed to receive a good education. [...]
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